In December 2020, health care workers and residents of long-term care facilities began receiving newly authorized COVID-19 vaccines. This made them some of the first in line for life-saving vaccinations developed at unprecedented speed.
People with underlying health issues are next in the phased rollout of these vaccines. This group includes people with heart disease, asthma, diabetes, and cancer — conditions that make them vulnerable to COVID-19 complications.
UPMC doctors say it is critical for cancer patients to receive COVID-19 vaccines. According to a recent paper published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, cancer — particularly leukemia, lymphoma, and lung cancer — is associated with a significantly higher risk of COVID-19 complications.
Many cancer patients may have questions about side effects and effectiveness. However, Stanley Marks, MD, chairman, UPMC Hillman Cancer Center, said new COVID-19 vaccines are safe for those facing cancer.
“We are recommending that all our patients get the vaccines. It’s safe,” Dr. Marks says. “We are encouraging patients to get the vaccine as soon as their turn comes up.”
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COVID-19 Vaccines in Cancer Patients: What Are the Side Effects?
The Food and Drug Administration in December 2020 issued emergency use authorizations (EUAs) for two vaccines to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, one from Pfizer-BioNTech and another developed by Moderna. A third, developed by Johnson & Johnson/Janssen, received an EUA in February 2021. The FDA granted full approval to the Pfizer vaccine Aug. 23, 2021.
To receive the EUA, the drugmakers had to provide extensive data on the vaccines’ safety and efficacy.
Clinical data shows both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are about 95% effective in preventing symptomatic COVID-19. The J&J vaccine is about 70% effective in preventing mild or moderate illness and 85% effective in preventing severe disease.
All three vaccines result in only minor side effects, such as soreness at the injection site, muscle aches, fever, chills, and headache.
The vaccines were tested on tens of thousands of people from a wide variety of backgrounds. However, none specifically studied the vaccines’ effects on cancer patients.
Still, Dr. Marks says cancer patients are not at high risk for side effects from either vaccine, regardless of their specific cancer type and/or cancer treatment regimen.
“Cancer patients are not at a higher incidence of having a reaction,” Dr. Marks says.
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Understanding the COVID-19 Vaccines for Cancer Patients
It is important for cancer patients to understand the difference between a vaccine with a live virus and one with an inactive virus.
The Moderna and Pfizer COVID-19 vaccines do not contain the live virus that causes COVID-19. These vaccines instead use synthetic mRNA to instruct cells in the human body to make antibodies that fight the virus.
While vaccines with live, dead, or weakened viruses may cause infections in cancer patients and others with compromised immune systems, vaccines with mRNA do not pose the same risk.
mRNA stands for messenger ribonucleic acid. You can think of an mRNA vaccine as sending instructions into the body on how to fight COVID-19. These single-stranded molecules carry genetic code from DNA in a cell’s nucleus to ribosomes, which make protein in the cells.
The J&J vaccine, meanwhile, is what is known as a viral vector vaccine. According to the CDC, a viral vector vaccine uses a substitute virus to deliver instructions to your immune system.
In the J&J vaccine, scientists added part of the coronavirus’ genetic material to an adenovirus, a common virus that usually causes cold or flu symptoms. When you get the vaccine, your immune system recognizes that genetic material and creates antibodies. That, then, provides immunity against the coronavirus.
While the modified adenovirus can enter your cells, it cannot cause infection. You cannot get COVID-19 from the vaccine.
Distributing COVID-19 Vaccines to Cancer Patients
The distribution of COVID-19 vaccines is happening in phases and will occur over many months. Health care workers and residents and staff of long-term care facilities are at the highest risk of COVID-19 exposure and are now receiving the first doses.
Next, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that the vaccine be provided to both frontline workers and those with underlying health conditions, such as cancer.
An exact timeframe for these vaccinations is not yet known. UPMC hopes to expand vaccine access to the general population by spring 2021.
UPMC Hillman Cancer Center will be offering vaccines to its patients as they become available, said Robert Ferris, MD, director, UPMC Hillman Cancer Center. Patients with questions on these vaccines should begin the conversation with their doctor now.
“Once patients ask if they should get it, they start asking where they should get it,” Dr. Ferris says.
“We’re trying to explain how we try to prioritize, and it’s not a perfect ranking system. [COVID-19 vaccines] are a limited resource that will eventually get to everybody.”
Patients who experience side effects from the vaccine can consult with their care team, Dr. Ferris says. And while COVID-19 vaccines are an important step in the fight against COVID-19, patients must continue to practice preventive measures: masking, hand-hygiene, and social distancing.
UPMC Hillman Cancer Center provides world-class cancer care, from diagnosis to treatment, to help you in your cancer battle. We are the only comprehensive cancer center in our region, as designated by the National Cancer Institute. We have more than 70 locations throughout Pennsylvania, Ohio, New York, and Maryland, with more than 200 oncologists. Our internationally renowned research team is striving to find new advances in prevention, detection, and treatment.